If you suffer from tension headaches, you're not alone. Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, and experts estimate that they affect up to 78 percent of people. They can be set off by any number of triggers including stress, too little sleep, missing meals, or by a tightening of your neck and scalp muscles by what you're probably doing right now — reading at a computer. And if half of your days are marred by tension headaches, they're considered to be chronic.
Even though tension headaches are painful, they are usually not a sign of a more serious problem. Over-the-counter painkillers, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and ibuprofen (Advil) usually alleviate the pain, but they come with their own risks.
Acetaminophen can cause liver damage when used in large amounts or over a long period of time, and both aspirin and ibuprofen can cause stomach upset and bleeding. Recent studies have even indicated that ibuprofen can raise your risk of heart problems.
Fortunately, you can control your tension with the following natural remedies:
• Try peppermint oil. One randomized, placebo-controlled German study applied 10 percent peppermint oil (mixed with 90 percent ethanol) to the temples or forehead of volunteers who were suffering from stress headaches. They found that in 15 minutes, peppermint oil relieved pain as well as 1,000 mg of acetaminophen with no side effects.
• Enjoy coffee, tea, or an energy drink. The effective component is caffeine, so be sure to drink caffeinated versions. Caffeine helps reduce the swelling of blood vessels which helps to relieve headaches. Caffeine's ability to reduce swelling is why it's included as an ingredient in some extra-strength painkillers.
• Take feverfew. Feverfew has been used for hundreds of years to treat headaches. One study found that taking a minimum of 250 milligrams a day lessened the number and severity of headaches in 70 percent of patients. Experts believe feverfew increases blood flow by relaxing blood vessels. (Note: Don't take feverfew if you're allergic to ragweed.)
• Drink more water. The Mayo Clinic says that headaches can be caused by dehydration, and while thirst is a good indicator that your body needs more water, the experts at Mayo Clinic recommend looking at the color of your urine instead. If it's clear, you're drinking enough. If it's yellow, you may be dehydrated, and the darker the shade of yellow, the more dehydrated you are. Drink up!
• Take willow bark. Willow bark has been used for thousands of years to ease headaches. It contains salacin, a chemical used to develop aspirin. A study at the University of Maryland found it reduces inflammation as well as relieves pain, and other studies have found that it is as effective as aspirin. Researchers in Germany have likewise found that it is as effective as acetaminophen in easing headache pain. Willow bark can be bought in capsules or as a tea.
• Watch your diet. Certain foods can trigger tension headaches in sensitive people. They include monosodium glutamate (MSG), chocolate, cheese, red wine, nitrates, and caffeine. If you suspect a food is the cause of your headaches, try an elimination diet.
• Get enough magnesium. Studies have shown that people who have tension headaches tend to have lower levels of magnesium in the blood and brain than those who are headache free, and supplementing with magnesium (up to 250 mg three times a day) has been shown to significantly reduce tension headaches. Magnesium can be found in almonds, bananas, and avocados.
• Eat a curry. A Scottish study at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen found that common Indian spices are rich sources of salicylate, a natural painkiller that is the active ingredient in aspirin. In fact, a single serving of hot curries contain much higher amounts of salicylates than an aspirin tablet. But the curries have to be hot to be helpful. The researchers found that milder curry dishes, such as chicken korma, had smaller amounts of pain-killing salicyclates, than hotter ones such as vindaloo.
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